The Tale of Gorham's Bluff
In 1892, in the northeastern corner of Alabama, a grizzled
Civil War veteran named Billy Gorham appeared on Sand Mountain and, shortly
thereafter, built a modest lean-to shack on land deeded him by the U.S.
government - a picturesque bluff overlooking the Tennessee River.
Equal parts fact and folklore, and no less dramatic than the expansive
view that characterizes the property, the story of Billy Gorham is one
of enigma. Depending on whom you ask, this reclusive Confederate was either
a former James gang cohort guarding a treasure of silver coins or a pensive
wallflower with a fondness for growing strawberries; a gruff, sophomoric
wife-killer, or a sophisticated eccentric with a passion for music.
Whether he was none of these things or, as likely, all of them, one aspect
of the story is clear. The history of Billy Gorham is an enduring tale
rich in contrasts.
And it's one that continues today in the emerging new town that bears
Despite its recent 10-year anniversary, the town of Gorham's
Bluff is still in its infancy, a reality that compels town founder Dawn
McGriff to consistently refer to it as "her child."
It's an analogy, I discover, that turns up often. After all, in the contemporary
world of new town development, Gorham's Bluff is somewhat of an anomaly.
It is not the work of a conventional developer, nor is it the product
of extensive market analysis, nor is its success being measured exclusively
in terms of profit. Instead, it combines an idealistic business venture
with issues of legacy, family and history in a way that makes the project
intrinsically more human. A way that makes McGriff's comparisons with
learn-as-you-go parenthood and heartbreaks felt with a child's shortcomings
and failures so compelling.
As we discuss the town's history and growing pains, McGriff's role as
enthusiastic parent emerges in force, making it abundantly obvious that
her relationship with Gorham's Bluff is one that transcends that of developer/project.
It's personal. After all, the land itself, though not purchased by her
family until her teenage years, has played a familial role since before
she was born. Then, in 1992, a hundred years after Billy Gorham settled
in, her father Bill began serious consideration of development and Dawn,
then a 31-year-old marketing consultant and devotee of the new town resort
of Seaside, Fla., assumed the leadership role she maintains to this day.
With their 1993 completion of the Gorham's Bluff town plan, emerging from
a series of "kitchen table discussions" with real estate broker
Chris Kent and architect/planner Lloyd Vogt, the first broad stroke was
applied to the formerly blank canvas. Many more would follow, each contributing
to the town's evolving artistic statement. An early street network of
tightly woven lots. An overlook pavilion and performance amphitheatre.
The first homes. A dramatic bed and breakfast, the Lodge (which Dawn jokingly
refers to as their "million dollar marketing brochure"), overlooking
the valley below. And perhaps most influential, 1994's amphitheatre production
of "Foxfire" that formally initiated the town's culture of performance
Still, the unique strengths of Gorham's Bluff ultimately proved to be
equal parts weakness. Art, after all, is something personal; something
others tend to discover on their own terms. It is pure and is difficult
to consider as a commodity crassly promoted. With the town evolving as
an artistic work in progress, operations tended predictably to favor the
related arts programming and Lodge management, ultimately at the expense
of solid real estate marketing. If you build it, goes the ideal, they
will come. Well, maybe in the movies but, as it turns out, not in Appalachia.
Significant growth failed to materialize.
In discussing the lessons learned, McGriff and I again return to the conflicted
analogy with child rearing, where emotion often dictates and the "right
way" of doing things is largely a matter of opinion. "Tell me,"
she says, seeming both frustrated and strangely satisfied, "how we've
had theatre for seven years, and only 25 houses. We've got a lodge that's
one of Travel and Leisure's top 30 getaway places, and all we have
is 25 houses. It's because we went and did what we like. And what's really
important to us."
For anyone who's grown jaded seeing "developer" and "town
founder" used synonymously in PR literature, as though the former
was automatically imbued with innate dignity and virtue, McGriff's sense
of genuine conviction and fallibility is refreshing. And while some might
find failure in her realizations, she views it differently. In serendipitously
pursuing what they wanted, she says, they made every mistake you could
make. But, in doing so, they ultimately discovered the right path and,
along the way, sowed the seeds of real character.
That "right path" led, in many ways, to Nathan
Norris, a pragmatic, young attorney from Birmingham feeding a newly found
fascination with traditional neighborhood development. Signing on as town
manager in March 2001, Norris, with a soft-spoken delivery uncommon for
someone as incisive and confident, has provided this second-home arts
community with a valuable commodity previously in short supply: balance.
Goal number one? Freeing up the town's resources. Between Lodge operations,
performing arts (which are managed through their own organization, the
Gorham's Bluff Institute), land development, marketing, and real estate
sales, the well-intentioned efforts of Dawn and her modest staff had become
diluted at best, and ineffectual at worst. A full-time director was brought
in, assuming responsibility for all arts programming and related activities,
while the structure and processes associated with managing The Lodge were
modified and tuned. Ultimately, it became a realistic proposition to concentrate
on restoring the town's slowed momentum.
This was tackled through what Norris clinically calls "improving
the product," something crippled by the exclusivity of detached,
single-family dwellings outlined in Vogt's original plan. Not only was
this monoculture of housing detrimental from a social standpoint, artificially
limiting the diversity of people likely to wind up in Gorham's Bluff,
it was equally devastating from a marketing standpoint for exactly the
same reason. From Norris' perspective, the number of people necessary
to populate the town would never materialize based on a single housing
experience. Choice was critical.
This choice was achieved through the town's most dramatic endeavor: a
complete rethinking of its physical plan and subsequent revision by Steve
Mouzon, the Huntsville-based architect and planner. The result of an energetic
design charrette where over 60 professionals and homeowners converged,
the revised plan articulates a far more distinctive and compelling vision
for the town; one built on the creation of lovable, unique places that
more convincingly serve the diverse collection of people destined to inhabit
Finally, Norris asserted that the Gorham's Bluff vision, the principles
on which future decisions would be based, needed to be more effectively
articulated. These emerged in three parts: respect and preservation for
the property's native landscape; the celebration of creativity in all
its forms; and, finally, a community where connection - to nature, neighbors
and self - is enthusiastically fostered.
"Connection is my thing," says McGriff and, in fact, more than
a few people have commented that the success of Gorham's Bluff can be
measured by the quality of her dinner parties. But while she pushed to
promote these community connections as one of the town's core values,
her role as developer often demands a sense of detachment to ensure impartiality
and reduce conflict among the residents. How, I ask, do you feel about
"A little sad," she confides, more than a tad aware of the situation's
irony. It's to be expected, though. Just one more example of the poetic
contrasts that have defined this property for over 100 years.
Unlike a more conventional project, Gorham's Bluff has
no pat answer to the question, "what's next?" There are no rigid
implementation schedules, culminating in a total build-out charted by
month and year, nor are there currently any bulldozers parked on site,
quietly testifying that change is coming.
In their place is a sense of purpose and direction, fueled by a long-nurtured
understanding that successful communities are as much a product of their
people as they are their physical form. This is the ambitious mountain
town's true advantage. For, as the debate grows as to whether a traditional
"development" can really possess any soul, Gorham's Bluff will
quietly continue attesting that indeed it can.
Norris takes a moment to ponder this. "Over time," he says,
"the great places, the places that we appreciate the most, are those
where you have a situation like Dawn's, where it's a labor of love. You
can tell that in the final product."
"Eventually," he muses confidently, "you get it right."
Scott Doyon is a partner and writer with Civitatis, a marketing communications
firm devoted to increased connections between people and place. He can
be reached at email@example.com or by calling 404.377.6428. For
more information on Gorham's Bluff and The Lodge, including rates and
availability, visit the town's website at www.gorhamsbluff.com.